CHAPTER 14 – PRESENTATION VS. REPRESENTATION

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THERE ARE TWO WAYS OF RELATING to the audience during the performance of a story. The difference is clearest in theatre.  In a representational play, the actors all act as if there were a fourth wall between them and the audience.  If they look in the direction of the audience, they give no sign of seeing that anyone is out there looking at them.  Instead, they pretend that they’re seeing only what would be there if the play were real – another wall of the drawing room, or the rest of the Forest of Arden.  This technique helps the audience maintain the illusion of reality (or, as it is commonly called, the willing suspension of disbelief).  Though of course the audience knows they are watching a play, the actors do as little as possible to remind them of it.

Of course, no play is ever perfectly representational. For instance, if the actors sit down at dinner, the major characters – or at least the taller ones – tend to group themselves on the upstage side of the table, the side farther from the audience, so they will face the audience.  Furthermore, the script generally has people speaking in coherent language, often with complete sentences, which real people rarely do.  If you know what to look for , you’ll see the actors, the director, the lighting technician, the makeup artist, the playwright, and everybody else working very hard to sustain the illusion of reality.

All this is in the effort to deal with the audience’s constant query: “Oh, yeah?”  And despite the players’ best effort to be “real” (David Belasco, a naturalistic producer at the turn of the century, once transplanted an actual apartment, stained wallpaper and all, to the stage), the fact is that even the most representational theatre is still be presented to an audience, with reality distorted in a thousand ways in order to help the audience receive it.

Presentational theatre, on the other hand, tears down that imaginary fourth wall. The actions don’t just admit the audience is there, they make constant contact with the audience.  This style is at its extreme in the art of stand-up comedy, where the actor even talks to the audience about the audience’s response.  (Comedians are actors playing a role, of course – you don’t think Johnny Carson or Rodney Dangerfield or Howie Mandel or Elayne Boosler are really like their comedic personas, do you?)  The actors and the audience are engaged in continuous conversation.

Somewhere between the two extremes are the plays where the actors don’t usually speak right to the audience, but still don’t attempt to recreate reality in full. Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed on a nearly bare stage.  If you needed the Forest of Arden, an actor would say, in effect, “Here we are in the Forest of Arden.”  If they were at a castle, somebody would say, “For three days we have waited here at Caernarvon Castle,” and this told the audience all they needed to know; their imagination would supply the trees.

We aren’t talking about the differences between romance and realism here. We’re talking about the storytellers’ relationship with the audience.  In fiction, the representational writer never addresses her audience.  The narrator never expresses a personal opinion.  All the focus is on the events, and everything is expressed through the point of view of a character in the story.  In a representational first-person account, the narrator has clearly in mind who it is she’s talking to, and it isn’t the reading audience.  Think of John Hersey’s The Wall, where he carefully maintains the illusion that the novel is actually a journal written by a participant in the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.  When I read the book at the naïve age of seventeen, I was completely taken in; it took several days of baffling searches through the library for more information before I finally realized that the book was fiction.  I remember very well the depth of the illusion and how much more power it lent to the story; when I later wrote my historical novel Saints, I very carefully framed it as an absolutely representational document, complete with a “historian” as the narrator and phony acknowledgments to people who are either disguised or never existed at all.

On the other hand, fiction can be highly presentational. Kurt Vonegut is a prime example.  He speaks directly to the audience; he refers to himself; the author’s hand is so obvious in the story that the reader never forgets that he is reading fiction.

Sometimes the boundary between representational and presentational becomes hopelessly muddied. William Goldman’s classic The Princess Bride is both at once.  The romance itself is plainly presentational – the supposed author, “Morgenstern,” makes comments and asides to his audience.  But Morgenstern’s story is “framed” by a present-day story narrated by a sort of Pseudo-William Goldman as a modern screenwriter who is rediscovering the Morgenstern classic he adored as a child.  The present-day “Goldman” constantly interrupts the flow of the romance to comment on Morgenstern or on his own reaction to the story.  Yet the frame story itself, about Goldman’s experiences as a screenwriter in Hollywood, is absolutely representational.  Goldman sustains the illusion that, while the romance by Morgenstern is fiction, it really is by Morgenstern.  It is, in other words, a presentational story within a representational one, and if that sounds hopelessly confusing to you, I assure you that it isn’t.    Goldman manipulates the complex structure so flawlessly that I used the book as a basic text in my freshman composition and literature class the year I taught at Notre Dame.  After understanding the structure of The Princess Bride, my students were quite ready to deal with something as relatively simple as King Lear.

What does this have to do with you? You must decide where your story will be on the continuum between presentational and representational storytelling.  Either approach has its drawbacks and its advantages.  You must decide what your story needs – and what you’re good at – and then use that approach consistently.

Whichever way you choose to write, you must let the audience know immediately what to expect.  Nothing is more cruelly jarring than to get fifty pages into a representational novel and have the narrator suddenly spring a “dear reader” on us.

Not that it isn’t possible to switch from one to another in midstream. I wrote a novel which seemed to be representational except, perhaps, for a certain archness of tone – a “toldness” about the tale – and only gradually dropped hints that the book was being written by one of the characters in the book, who was writing it in order to persuade another character not to kill the protagonist.  My editor and I finally agreed, though, that I had been too subtle.  I ended up going back and making it plain from the beginning that the book was being written to one of the characters in order to persuade him to a course of action.  The only puzzle I left in place was that I didn’t reveal until the end of the book which character was writing it.  I could have left it the other way, but it wasn’t worth the cost to the audience.  The gradual shift in the first version bought no great benefit, and stood a good chance of seriously diminishing the readers’ emotional involvement in the book.

Here are a couple of story openings, just to show you the difference. The first is extremely representational – it is meant to feel like a real document a character might have produced.  The second is extremely presentational – it is meant to sound like a writer who is keenly aware of his contemporary audience.  Yet, oddly enough, they both are narrated by a self-conscious narrator, who is sensitive to the fact that he is writing something he means someone to read:

My name is Macon Anderson and I pray God will guide my pen. I also pray he’ll find some way to keep these scraps of paper from getting found and going up in flames or down the toilet along with my hope of freedom; I also pray that he’ll find some way to get it out of here and into someone else’s hands.  But what are my prayers?  Why should you care?  You with your house payments and day-care costs, you with your chance of a promotion and your plans for a vacation at Disney World, what do you ever pray for, if you pray at all?  To hell with you, anyway.  Paper is too precious, this pencil is too short for me to waste more of it on you.  You aren’t real, anyway.  Real people are the ones whose stink I smell in the morning, whose hands snag on the rough bark of trees and mingle their blood with mine, whose eyes look longingly at my scrap of bread and then study my body, wondering how my strength is holding up, and whether I’m weak enough now that it’s safe to start trying to steal food from me.  I’m still too strong for them – this is how I know that God lives and answers prayers.

Listen tight, boys and girls, this is what you stayed up so late to read. Your mommy and daddy have gone to bed, you’ve got the flashlight on under the covers, and now I’m going to tell you the story of Mike and Betty Meekly, who got fed up and shot their parents in the head one day.  Your folks don’t want you to read this Chapter because they’re afraid you’ll get ideas.  Hell, they got nothing to worry about.  After years of watching television, you wouldn’t know an idea if it came up and spit in your face.

Remember that I made up this story. It’s all lies.  So even if you happen to have heard some news story about some girl who figured her daddy had poked around in her underwear – for the last time – or about some boy who figured his folks had hit him with a garden tool – for the last time – even if you saw pictures of that kid getting out of court on a six-month suspended sentence, I don’t want you to start getting the idea that this story is true.  OK?  Because I don’t want some fruitcake suing me for having led him into killing his parents because my novel told him it was a justifiable kind of homicide.  I want to go on record right now as saying that even if your parents are the most unconscionable swine who ever produced accidental, unwanted, and misread off-spring, I don’t think you should kill them.  I officially encourage you to avoid even thinking about murder.  I’m just a fiction writer, telling entertaining fibs for people who haven’t got enough imagination to invent their own daydreams of bloody vengeance.

Both narrators address their audience directly. But the first story is meant to be received as an actual journal scribbled by a prisoner on scraps of paper, chronicling his life in a concentration camp, while the second one is meant to be received as a work of fiction, constantly making the reader aware of the author’s not-so-hidden agenda.  So the first story’s direct address the “audience” is representational – it enhances the illusion that the story being told is true.  While the second story is presentational – it makes it impossible to forget that the story is fiction.

Two more examples, now, both in third person:

Martin volunteered to do the shopping just so he could get out of the house. the house was too small these days, too crowded now that he had no job to get to, now that he could sleep as late as he wanted.  He could hear every noise that Deanne made, mucking around in the kitchen; and she could hear every sound the television made, as he dozed through his daily pilgrimage through Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, Superior Court, and The Love Connection.  Martin knew that every theme song was a reminder to Deanne that he wasn’t out looking for work.  Every time she spoke to him it felt like a reproof, even though he knew that her words were innocent, that she was walking on eggshells trying to keep him from getting mad at her again. So he went and did the shopping, even though it always made him feel even worse because he ran out of money so much sooner than he ran out of grocery list.

Sary’s job at The Daily Record was to go through all the reporters’ stories and put in typographical errors.  Now that the paper was set directly from the computer files that the reporters typed in, there was no typesetting stage in which errors could be created.  Papers might actually start coming out error-free.  Management was deeply worried about this during the lockout when they got rid of the damned typesetters union once and for all.  Typos were a part of newspaper life.  If they didn’t get a hundred letters a week complaining about bad grammar or misspellings, how would they know anybody was paying attention?  If they never had a dumb headline or a screwed-up classified ad, how could they ever get a mention in those little end-of-column clippings in The New Yorker?  So they created the position of typographical editor, hired Sary, and set her to work turning from into form, there into their, taking single lines of text out of one column and putting them in another, and occasionally getting creative and inserting meaningless things like “XxxxxX75 Petunia.  There they gSSSgp” into the middle of an article on some poor geek’s presidential campaign.  Sary was good at her job, and took pride in it.  The paper got two quotes in The New Yorker the first year she was on the job, had to make seven “Our Mistake” corrections because of public complaints, and all in all she was worth her weight in gold.  If it weren’t for haemorrhoids her life would be perfect.  Not that she had haemorrhoids – she didn’t even have a semi-cancerous polyp or anything.  Her boss’s haemorrhoids, that’s what made life less than perfect for Sary.

Why is the first example representational, and the second example presentational? In the first story, everything is seen from Martin’s point of view.  There is no sense of the narrator intruding with his own evaluation of things, or even of the narrator supplying any information that Martin couldn’t know.  Even Deanne’s attitudes are obviously Martin’s assumption of what her attitude must be.  The narrator is almost invisible.

In the second example, however, Sary is being talked about.  We aren’t getting her perceptions of anything.  Instead, we’re getting the narrator’s snide tone and whimsical invention.  The reader can’t even be sure yet whether Sary’s job really is what the narrator says it is, or if in fact she’s a copyeditor who happens to get attention only when a typo slips past her, in which case she gets blamed as if she had deliberately put it there.  No matter what turns out to be true, the narrator has inserted himself between the audience and Sary.  We’re going to see her from a distance, through the narrator’s skewed and somewhat wry perceptions.

It is much easier for readers to get emotionally involved in a representational story. With their “oh yeah?” response constantly dealt with, they can forget they’re reading fiction and become completely absorbed in what happens.  But the representational writer denies himself the chance to engage his reader directly; the technique of representational writing forbids the writer to point things out directly, or to make comments on the scenes he shows.  Instead, if the writer insists on making those points, he must work out a way for a character to say the things he wants said, or see things the way he wants them seen, and there’s nothing to stop the reader from missing the point entirely.

On the other hand, it is much easier to present clear ideas in a presentational story; satire and comedy, because they require less emotional involvement, suffer least from the disruptions caused by presentational writing. In fact, you might be able to make a good case for the idea that presentational writing can only be funny these days.  A genteel “dear reader” interruption is simply not among the current protocols of serious storytelling, whereas gonzo comic writing almost demands that the narrator remind her audience that fiction is what’s going on here.  As long as your story is not one that depends on your audience feeling a deep emotional involvement with the characters, you can use a presentational voice with a little risk.

One thing must be understood. The more you rely on the narrator’s voice to carry the story instead of the events themselves, the better your writing has to be.  Because when the audience’s attention is drawn away from the story, it goes somewhere.  They’re staring at your style close up, and if your voice happens not to be very entertaining, you’ve lost them.

Another way of putting it is this: In a good representational story, the audience will forgive a certain clumsiness of writing because they care so much about the characters and events. In a good presentational story, the audience will forgive a certain shallowness of story because they so enjoy the writer’s style and attitude.  So you not only have to know what’s good for your story, you also have to know what type of story your particular talents are best suited for.

 

©Andrea MarshallDodgson 1973.

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